By Anna Saghabalian
Yerevan’s presidentially appointed mayor, Yervand Zakharian, brushed aside on Friday continuing criticism of the displacement of people from old downtown neighborhoods that are undergoing large-scale redevelopment.
Zakharian also claimed that expensive office and apartment buildings that are emerging in place of old and mostly decrepit houses are necessary for Armenia’s European integration. “With a rundown center full of ramshackle houses with people living in unsanitary conditions we can not match all those states that are now members of European structures,” he told a news conference.
The way in which the authorities have been handling the process has been strongly criticized by local residents as well as human rights activists and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Larisa Alaverdian, is also among the critics. She said on Thursday that the demolition of old houses standing in the way of two new avenues currently under construction has violated constitutional provisions guaranteeing citizens’ right to property.
“This is Larisa Alaverdian’s opinion,” snapped Zakharian. He insisted that the overwhelming majority of nearly one thousand families affected by the redevelopment are happy with the amount of financial compensation they received from the state.
“We have already signed 997 agreements [with dislocated families] and it is natural that there are some citizens unhappy with those agreements,” the mayor said. “All the work is carried out in accordance with laws and regulations ensuring their implementation.”
In fact, the process has been regulated only by government decisions and there have been no specific laws passed by the Armenian parliament. Alaverdian and other critics believe that this represents a serious breach of the constitution which states that private property in Armenia can be alienated by the state only in a manner defined by law.
Zakharian claimed that the average rate of compensation is close to a princely $1,000 per square meter of living space, bringing the example of a family that was paid $33,336 for vacating a small 41-square-meter house. However, other families that lived or still live in the rapidly changing area claim to have been offered more modest sums. They accuse government officials dealing with the matter of deliberately lowering the cash allocations for personal gain.
Among them is Ruzan Khachatrian, a senior member of the Artarutyun alliance and the main opposition candidate in the upcoming local election in Yerevan’s central Kentron district. She says she received $23,000 for her previous home that occupied 35 square meters. Even the smallest apartments in Kentron are now more expensive.
“I was forced to sign the agreement to avoid being evicted from my home,” Khachatrian told RFE/RL.